On June 30, 2004, at the young age of 19, Ronnie almost died at the result of an attack on the convoy that he was travelling in between Baghdad and Falluja, Iraq. A munition blast ripped Ronnie from the .50 machine gun that he was manning atop a Humvee, and tossed him vilolently around inside the truck. The blast was so powerful, that both of Ronnie’s retinas were detached, and it was so hot that it melted his night vision goggles. He was burned over 9% of his body. A poignant documentation of Ronnie’s journey can be read in this Outside Magazine article.
I have never had to excuse myself while conducting an interview about sailing before I met up with Ronnie Simpson and his group of Wounded Warriors. As I was interviewing injured veterans, who were sailing on the SF Bay as part of Hope for the Warriors, I had to take several moments in an effort to gather myself. The stories that I was hearing from these Vets, which documented their incredible individual journeys of survival and healing after horrifying trauma during active wartime duty with the US Armed Forces, was pretty intense. I’m a feeling person, and the stories of brutality, survival and perseverance in the face of adversity, were extremely raw and real.
A handful of wounded vets, from all over the country, participated in this inaugural Hope for the Warriors sailing event. Ronnie is articulate, laidback and fit. He keeps his hair cropped close through which you can see the scars from his wartime wounds, and he engages in conversation with intensity.
As I walked down the docks with Ronnie, he gave me the rundown on several of the soldiers, including Jordan, one of the participating veterans, “The dude’s 26, originally from Sacramento. He's in the Navy, he’s an EOD (Explosives Ordinance Disposal) guy. He got shot in the head on December 17th in Afghanistan. After he got shot, he fell off of a 30’ roof and landed on his head. They didn’t know if he was going to live, or be paralyzed. He is incredibly fortunate to even be here, let alone recovering as well as he is. I walked up to him today and very gingerly offered, ‘Oh hi, I'm Ronnie. How are you?’ He replied, ‘What’s up, I’m Jordan.’ I could tell immediately that up in his head, he’s 100%. He was originally left handed, which is a blessing, because the brain damage affects his right side. We took him out on the Access Dinghy, and he absolutely loved it. Before injury he was a surfer, and a kite-boarder; a total waterman. He said that today's sailing was the single best day that he’s had since he got shot.”
Another wounded vet, Michael Welch, who came to SF from Oklahoma was smiling from ear to ear when I interviewed him, had an epic time on the water as well. His language ant tone became somber when I asked him how he was injured in combat, “I was in a few incidents with IEDs and I was in a roll over. My back is messed up, and my leg, but my main thing is PTSD. This clinic has been great. To get out of home and to be where good people are, laugh and have fun.” Clearly, the trauma of his wounds, and the pain of dealing with it in his everyday life were broken up by the incredible opportunity to sail on the iconic SF Bay.
Ronnie has big visions of integrating other Adaptive sports into his sailing program, but the physical limitations of some of the vets can be challenging. Ronnie reflects, ” A lot of guys that came to this clinic aren’t used to sailing, and being on the water for eight hours a day, I’ve noticed several of the guys getting tired. I want to keep all of the activities water based, like kayaking or surfing.”
The incredible group, Bay Area Diasabled Sailors (BAADS), has facilities located on the City Front of San Francisco at Pier 40 that are specifically designed to get people with any number of disabilities on the water and successfully sailing. Alex Hruzewicz a volunteer for BAADS, who was once confined to a wheelchair, explains his motivation, “ I just volunteered to help out Hope for the Warriors. We’re using Acess Dinghys, these are called 303s and the bigger ones are called Liberties. These were designed in Australlia by a gentleman named Chris Mitchell. I started sailing them 5 years a go. I was in a wheelchair at the time, and I didn’t think that I’d do much sailing again due to my injuries. So these boats allowed me to sail again, and I think it’s awesome to share that with other people.” Please consider volunteering or donating to BAADS! They really do incredible work.
Hope for the Warriors Team Director Jenlene Nowak was on site at the BAADS facility, and is excited to Support Ronnie in his sailing endeavors, “We’re supporting Ronnie’s sailing clinic, and we’re the title sponsor for his Single-Handed Transpac campaign. He want’s to give back to the veterans, so we’re here supporting that.
Hope for the Warriors does necessary work within a variety of different sports, Jenlene explains, “This sailing clinic fell under my jurisdiction, and we have a community team that fundraises. For example, we have bids for the Marine Crops Marathon, the New York Marathon, and different popular races, so people come to us with the bids to fundraise, that allows us to bring in wounded team members to participate. Another part of our program is the donation of adaptive equipment like hand-cycles, so that wounded vets can participate.”
The teaming of Ronnie, BAADS, and Hope for the Warriors seems natural, and has the potential to make a significant, positive impact on the lives of many recovering soldiers. Jenlene was impressed how it all came together, “This is our very first sailing clinic, and these are our first participants, I’m sure we’ll see a lot of interest from this. It was amazing to watch the progression from a person who had never sailed, to being on their own after just 3 days. I think it’s going to have a lasting impact. I think that by being here with BAADS, and working with Ronnie, the participants are inspired to get into something new. I want to give my deepest gratitude to these volunteers at BAADS, they are so amazing and patient. They went above and beyond. I am very impressed with their organization.”